A short story that I wrote at the end of last year.
He watched her dance from the high window of his house. Her arms rose and fell, her shoes slotted into each other as she moved slowly across the pavement. Her body swayed, limber as a reed. Her eyes looked not down at the pavement as other people’s did, but towards the sky in an almost dream state. Her tutu was a faded grey hue, and the shoes that she wore were wearing in too many places. There was no music, only the bustling of the street-crowds as they walked past. She rose and fell, tottering on her feet. The movements were the same, but the routine always different. How he loved her.
He was an old man, coming to seventy, and held fiercely to his promise to keep his granddaughter safe. She was almost an adult, her face now held that expression that can only be gained when one has knowledge and experience. He could not afford to keep her now, yet he would not tell her. The intricate watches he made were no longer selling. Those that did sell sold for next to nothing. People knew about them now. Men stopped in the streets to spit at his feet as soon as they saw the Star of David. He felt tied to the symbol, yet he would not give it up. He did not allow Hannah to wear it, though. She was not deserving of that kind of treatment. If the street-crowds saw the Star of David on her, she would cease to be a ballerina, a thing of beauty and an escape from the world, and become a figure of hate. He could not let her bear that same cross that he bore without complaint.
The country was changing rapidly. Winter was coming, soon it would arrive. In a few weeks it would be too cold for Hannah to dance and they would have to last the winter on his wage alone. It would be difficult, but it had been done before. They survived well enough on a combination of his sales and the money that people threw into the grey satin bag at Hannah’s dancing feet. She was earning more money than he was. It would be difficult for him to persuade her to stop busking once the winter set in. He could not let her get sick. He would make more watches, and maybe take another job if he needed to. But he would be hard pressed finding work, especially as he was Jewish.
Gustave had told him that they were coming. His friend had narrowly escaped being sent away just over a month ago. Gustave’s real name was Isaiah and although he did not wear a Star of David, they were able to find him easily. He had been living in Calais at the time and had only recently moved to Leon, where Noah and Hannah lived. He had called on Noah fearfully just two days ago, babbling about how his friend on the outskirts of the city had been taken away. They would be here soon and they would take them all to a camp from which they would never return. Noah had felt a chill at this, and allowed his friend, who was in deep shock, to stay the night in his small house. As Gustave slept soundly in Noah’s own bed, the old man sat in his workshop amidst his tools and the skeletons of half finished watches thinking about the days ahead.
France had become a grey country. Not only had the oncoming winter stripped the trees of their vibrant leaves, but the war had stripped the people’s faces of joy and light. Even Hannah’s eyes had taken on a grey hue as opposed to their usual blue. Gustave, who had left the next morning, had dark circles under his eyes, although Noah had been sure he had slept deeply the night before. France was tired and sick, and she had passed her disease onto her citizens. Hannah was paid well these days. Noah wondered whether this was because she remained a symbol of hope throughout this dreary time, a reminder that one could still dream. He watched out the window of the house as men and women of all age groups walking by and stopped, mesmerised by her twisting, twirling figure. They would reach into their pockets and discard their loose change, thankful to her for a momentary escape.
A few days later Gustave returned once again. He looked in slightly better health, but his news was worse. He told Noah that his Jewish relatives in the next suburb had been taken yesterday. They were hunting them down like wolves and soon they would come to this suburb, this street and they would have no mercy. This had made Noah frightened, and Hannah could see it on his face. She worried about him as much as he worried about her. He still would not tell her the reason.
The next day was one of the coldest of the month, and Hannah wore a thick brown coat over her faded tutu. This gave her another appearance, and some didn’t recognise her. There was more to her that was different than just the coat. Her expression had deepened into a sadness which set into her eyes. She no longer looked to the sky when she danced, but at her feet. Her dance was slower that day, the sombre music of life creeping into her. Noah wished he could tell her to be calm, to enjoy these few days, but the fear had settled into him as well. He had not slept properly in two nights.
The day after next, Gustave came again. He had made a habit of appearing every two days. He would seek Noah for comfort, tell him the latest news and sometimes stay the night. He often brought them money from other Jews in the city who feared they would be taken soon. They had presented him with the money and told him to give it to others who needed it. Gustave had fearfully obeyed.
It was five days since his last visit, and Noah had seen nothing of him. He feared the worst. Hannah asked about him. They needed the money. The next day, when Noah went to the local bakery, he heard the news. They had come to take him away and had found him locked in the attic, a gun in his hand. They had told him to lower his weapon, he had shot and killed one of them. As he backed into the corner of the attic, one of them fired and blew his hand clean off. The pain had sent him mad and he had jumped out the window, landing in the street below with both his legs broken. Finally the leader put a gun to Gustave’s head and pulled the trigger, delivering mercy at last. They had thrown his broken body into the river and continued on.
Noah wept for Gustave that night, sitting in his workshop where Hannah would not be able to hear him amidst the constant ticking of clocks. He wept for violence and for disrespect, and finally for fear. He knew all too well that they had only a few days at the most. Hannah inquired about Gustave at last. Noah refused to tell her the truth, instead telling her that he had gone to an urgent meeting with some old friends in Calais. Her eyes told him that she didn’t believe.
The next day there was frost on the ground and Hannah’s breath puffed out mist in front of her. She went to work on the street corner with her thick brown coat, a scarf and a pair of gloves. All these covered her upper half, while her lower half wore simply a tutu, some thin stockings and a pair of Pointe shoes. It gave her a surreal appearance, two opposing images combined. Many people stopped to watch that day. That was the day that Hannah fell.
She had risen on her toes, her arms above her head, looking like a music box ballerina, albeit with strange clothing. The frost had not yet melted from the pavement, and as Hannah travelled gracefully across the space her foot had slipped. The image was broken, the facade of grace and poise shattered as Hannah fell to the ground with a cry. Her small audience gasped and remained frozen for a moment as they contemplated the ruined mirage. A nurse who happened to be walking by rushed over to help. She helped Hannah to sit up and examined her outstretched leg. After a few minutes of silence she proclaimed her ankle to be broken. She would have to be brought to the hospital.
At the gasps of the crowd, Noah had rushed to the window. He had wept at her fallen figure; tears of shock, of fear for his granddaughter, of grief for the demise of such beauty. He had seen the nurse run for help and had watched as a man of the street crowd put his jacket over Hannah’s stockinged legs. Another held her in a sitting position, and a young woman had given her a handkerchief. After fifteen minutes an ambulance came and Hannah was loaded onto a stretcher. She craned her neck upwards to look at the house and saw Noah’s anxious face watching her through the window. He raised a hand to the Star of David on his jacket lapel. No one must know that we are together. It was his goodbye.
For the rest of the day, Noah could not work. There was more noise outside; the street-crowds had gathered, asking to know where the dancer was. The constant ticking in Noah’s workshop seemed almost unbearable. His hands shook uncontrollably and he would often forget what he was doing. A job that normally would have taken him a few hours took him most of that day. By midnight, the watch was finished, intricate in its design with a pair of initials carved onto the back. Noah did not feel a sense of achievement, nor did he feel any pride for the beauty of his work. He had known beauty once, but now she lay in a hospital bed, weary, frightened and unable to dance. He took one last look at his day’s work before he snuffed the candle.
The watch was ticking backwards.
Noah felt a sudden anger at the realisation that his day’s work had been a waste. But he took a deep breath, ran a hand through his grey hair and walked slowly to his bedroom. He stopped by Hannah’s bedroom to close the door. Somehow he knew that he would never see her here again.
The next day, they came for him. He was awoken by a brusque knocking on the door. Nobody had knocked on his door for years. Anybody he trusted had been given a key. He had known who it was full minutes before he reached the door. They had taken him in his nightgown and given him no time to gather his possessions. His hands were tied together and he was shoved roughly into the back of a van. There were others there, and they all bore the same expression of resignation. The same expression had written itself on Noah’s face, except that it was intermingled with a tragic melancholy that showed in his old blue eyes. He put a hand over the Star of David on his neck as he left the street in which both he and his granddaughter had grown up.
One month later Hannah returned. She used a cane to help her walk up the long staircase to the house. Her old, worn Pointe shoes were tied around her neck. She entered Noah’s workshop and sat down at the desk. The constant ticking comforted her. She looked down onto the street where she had once danced and felt a pang of grief. Tears started to crawl down her cheeks and she wiped them away with the back of her hand. She rifled through the drawers, looking for a handkerchief. Instead, she found the backwards ticking watch. It was a beautiful thing, made of gold coloured metal with a pattern engraved in silver. On the back was a pair of initials belonging to nobody she knew. She put the watch in her pocket and headed out of the workshop and into her bedroom.
Hannah sat on the bed staring at the watch. There was an image that she could not rid from her mind. She could still see her grandfather standing at the workshop window with his hand on the Star of David. She knew what had happened to him and she felt sadness for him. She could not help but think she had been lucky. It would have been all too easy for her to be sitting in a camp with him at this very moment. This is what her grandfather would have wanted, for her to be safe.
She started to cry, the tears flowing freely down her cheeks, some landing on the watch. Her small figure shuddered and her shoulders hunched. She lay on the bed and finally fell asleep. When she woke up the next morning, the backwards ticking watch had stopped. Still groggy from sleep, Hannah pulled on her clothes and her shoes and headed out into the street. She stopped on the street corner underneath the workshop window. She lay her cane on the pavement in front of her. She moved slowly and unsteadily, trying not to place too much weight on her ankle.
She began to dance.
This won a Highly Commended for the FAW Young Writer of the Year awards. I hope you have enjoyed it!